It is not without reason that the BJP in recent times has been referred to as the ‘Hindu Divided Family’. Impressed by the speech given by Sushma Swaraj at the BJP National Council, I tweeted: “Outstanding speech by Sushma Swaraj: is she another PM in the making?”. Within minutes, I was subject to vicious abuse on Twitter, including from a person whose profile described him as the co-convenor of the BJP IT cell from Ahmedabad’s Ellisbridge area and a Narendra Modi supporter. Profanity on social media is not unusual, but it struck me that praise for a ‘rival’ BJP leader was being seen by a member of the Modi fan club as a downsizing of their icon.
Modi today is undoubtedly the prime ministerial choice of the BJP’s rank and file. The response to his speech at the party’s national council was euphoric: every dialogue was accompanied by loud cheering. The other leaders on the stage seemed almost dwarfed, like a supporting cast in a solo hero film. Even the media appears to have bought into the ‘Modi for PM’ slogan: the Gujarat chief minister’s was perhaps the only speech at the council that was covered ‘live’ by every national news channel. Which brings me to the central question: if Modi has been anointed the de facto PM candidate of the BJP cadres, why is the leadership reluctant to formally announce his name?
At the party council, amidst the Modi craze, LK Advani as elder statesman offered a reality check. In his speech, he called on the need to change the “equation between the BJP and the minorities,” adding, rather sagely, that the BJP needed to reach out to other parties to widen the NDA into “NDA plus” to provide a “viable, non-Congress alternative.” He almost sounded like the NDA’s original ‘unifier’ Atal Behari Vajpayee.
Ironically, it was Advani who had first showcased the BJP’s coalition credentials by projecting Vajpayee as the party’s prime ministerial candidate at the 1995 BJP convention in Mumbai. Advani was the Modi of that period: the ideological mascot and macho Hindutva hero who had lifted the party from near-oblivion to the political centrestage with his pivotal role in the Ram Janmabhoomi movement. By contrast, Vajpayee was seen as a leader from a previous era when the BJP had lived in the shadow of Congress dominance. Vajpayee’s oratory, much like that of a Sushma Swaraj, was always envied, but he wasn’t seen as the natural leader of political Hindutva. It required Advani’s pragmatism to recognise that the BJP needed a consensus builder and not an ideologue to enable the BJP to become a party of power in a coalition era.
Eighteen years later, the Sangh parivar is confronted with a near-identical dilemma. Does it follow the ideological instincts of its followers and position Modi as ‘the leader India awaits’; or does it seek refuge under the NDA umbrella and look for a Vajpayee clone who will be able to embrace the largest number of potential allies? The BJP could well claim that general elections are still a year away and these choices can be deferred to another day. However, the vaulting enthusiasm of its cadres and the growing restiveness of some of its key allies, both actual and potential, pose a challenge which can’t be postponed much longer.
Despite his attempted image makeover, Modi remains a polarising figure as the recent Wharton controversy confirms. It is now increasingly apparent that Nitish Kumar of the Janata Dal (United), the BJP’s single-biggest ally in Parliament with 20 seats, is unwilling to accept Modi’s leadership. It’s not just Nitish: would potential NDA allies like the Biju Janata Dal, Trinamool Congress, Telugu Desam — all of whom were once part of Vajpayee’s grand coalition — be willing to go into an election with Modi as their PM candidate? Would a Mayawati be willing to provide such an arrangement ‘outside support’? At the moment, the only fresh ally the NDA can count on under a Modi-led regime is Jayalalithaa.
At the same time, Modi’s charisma and personality could become a force multiplier that could enlarge the BJP’s traditional vote base. The urban middle class in particular, which appeared to desert the party in the 2009 elections, is seen to have endorsed Modi’s decisive leadership style and good governance mantra as providing a marked contrast with an effete Congress-led coalition that has been riddled with corruption and complacency. For a BJP whose highest tally has been 186 seats in the post-Kargil elections of 1999, Modi’s presence is seen to provide an additional 25 to 30 seats that could prove crucial in a fragmented verdict. But there is also the real fear — as shown up in the 2004 elections — that a strong Muslim turnout at the elections in response to Modi’s elevation could prove decisive in around a 75 to 100 seats across India.
Which way then does the BJP turn in an election where the UPA is clearly on the defensive? Does it gamble with Modi with the sole aim of becoming the single largest party in a divided Parliament? Or does it aim to create an NDA-plus government by relying on smaller regional parties who have a chameleon-like ability to transfer loyalties? The RSS would perhaps still like to play safe and prefer the notion of a ‘collective’ leadership ahead of elections, but if past experience is any guide, multi-starrers don’t work at the electoral box office.
Post-script: The ultimate irony: if in 1995, Advani’s had to sacrifice his prime ministerial ambitions because he was ill-suited as a coalition leader, could his stature now as the grand old man of the NDA make him a more ‘acceptable’ post verdict compromise candidate? It’s a long shot and the RSS may not concur, but in Indian politics, life can begin at 85!
Rajdeep Sardesai is editor-in-chief, IBN 18 network
The views expressed by the author are personal